Inyathelo hosts debate: Election 2014, political parties and civil society

This election season Inyathelo was privileged to host an unusual political event. Representatives from South Africa’s three largest political parties met at Inyathelo's Woodstock offices to debate “the continuing role of civil society in South Africa twenty years after our first democratic election.”

 Inyathelo hosts debate: Election 2014, political parties and civil society

“An independent and vibrant civil society is central to the preservation of the open society, and acts as a bulwark against the state imposing a hegemony of thought and truth.” Dr Wilmot James.

Not only did the candidates share the same stage (amicably, for the most part), they did so while constructively engaging with one of their a constituencies, a packed audience of representatives from Cape Town’s NGO community.  The unusually positive spirit was not lost on the audience or the press in attendance, which included Cape Town TV, Bush Radio and the Daily Maverick.

The Panel consisted of Max Ozinsky, ANC MPL; Dr Wilmot James, DA MP and shadow Minister for Education; and Nazier Paulsen, the EFF Western Premier candidate. Shelagh Gastrow, Inyathelo’s Executive Director, chaired the debate.

While the overall discussion was surprisingly gentile given the political disparity of the participants, it grew a bit testy when the EFF's Paulsen asserted that the ANC and DA all "get along” and “agree with each other.”  While the audience reacted with laughter to this bit of rhetorical bomb throwing, Dr James was clearly not amused, and wondered aloud as to “what planet he was on.”

And there were other moments of clash as well. For his part, James minced no words in calling the ANC’s administration of the National Lottery (the source of public funding for South African NGOs), “appalling,” and dismissed the Department of Arts and Culture as a “slush fund for ANC parties.” The ANC's record of management, James said, “is not a good one, and let me leave it at that”

When the discussion moved to government funding of civil society organisations, all agreed on its urgency, but offered starkly different approaches.

James suggested changing the tax structure to improve the sector’s sustainability: "We will reform the tax code to make it easier to set up charitable foundations and increase the percentage of donations that may be tax deductible.”

While acknowledging the importance of funding, Ozinsky urged that civil society not become too dependent on government funding. Such could be cynically construed as code for the ruling party’s lack of commitment to the very organisations that are fulfilling the government’s mandates. As if to anticipate the furiously tweeting fingers in the room, he pointed out that when organisations rely on government funding for their existence, they are in effect under government control and it is this kind of relationship that poses a threat to the very independence of civil society. The point is an important one to be sure, but hopefully one that will not become wiggle-room for backing out of government commitments.

2014 Election debateIt should be noted that the moderator, Shelagh Gastrow, deftly kept the candidates focused on the civil society sector.  Paulsen however, pulled the issue of funding directly into the EEF talking points. Citing South Africa’s trillions of rands of mineral wealth still in the ground, Paulsen promised the gathering that “our Leader and Commander-in-Chief, our president-in-waiting, Julius Malema”, plans to nationalise the country’s mining industry.  This, he added, would provide an unlimited source for civil society funding.

Obvious differences in political philosophies aside, the most thoughtful moments of the discussion explored that space where government, its citizens, and civil society come together and build a participatory democracy.  The boundaries of this intersection are blurrier than one might think. In his opening remarks, Max Ozinsky was at pains to point out the ANC itself emerged from the citizen activism of the liberation movement, and the very individuals who were involved in the struggle still populate the ranks of our political and civil society leadership.

Ozinsky later expressed concern though, that perhaps some of this spirit of citizen activism has been lost, that people today simply don’t know how to engage with government. “We no longer have a real public participation process. I have been to a number of committee meetings which were meant to be part of a public participation process, and which had to be cancelled because no one pitched up. I am not blaming civil society, but those in provincial power in the provincial legislature who do nothing to assist this participation,” he said. Not coincidently, Ozinsky’s narrative ties this breakdown of the public participation to the DA control of the Western Cape after the 2009 election. 

Causality aside, all three panelists agreed that South Africans must be told how to access their government, and here civil society has a vital role to play. “Civil society must educate people about their rights and obligations, help with election campaigns, to monitor polling stations and to ensure that vote counting is free and fair,” said Paulsen. To that point, James, noted the recent closings of several democracy monitoring organisations, like Idassa, a trend he called “a great failure.”

Perhaps the spirit of the day’s encounter was best captured when one of the audience members asked, “How do you expect civil society to participate in Government decisions?". Dr James responded that in the end, "just talking" is vital to breaking down government barriers. It was in that vein that the encounter carried on well after the debated ended, as several of those in attendance lingered on to chat with the panelists.